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Lakeland University's new Cooperative Education program helped the Sheboygan County-based institution net a record freshman class and the largest projected increase in new freshmen among the state's private colleges and universities.

Lakeland welcomed 217 first-time, full-time freshmen to campus, a 24 percent increase over 2017. Lakeland's previous best freshman class was 215 in 2013.

The freshmen are part of a new class of 275 students, which includes transfers and international students, which reverses a five-year downward trend in enrollment.

The freshman class includes 118 students joining Lakeland's new co-op program.

Lakeland's co-op program allows students to work for local employers and gain 12-18 months of professional work experience prior to graduation. Students can use wages they earn to pay their tuition, minimizing debt after graduation.

"The traditional model for educating students in a liberal arts setting is not sustainable economically for the majority of the families in this region of the Midwest," said Lakeland President David Black.

"We introduced cooperative education as an alternative to the pathway available at most institutions, and clearly it resonated with students and their parents. Students with intellectual curiosity and the motivation to work should have the opportunity to complete an arts and sciences education that includes experiential learning and that leaves them with little or no debt."

Black said the expanded partnerships that Lakeland is forming with companies and organizations in the region are critical.

"We're providing them with the human capital needed to help them achieve their operating and growth goals, which is part of the reason we exist," Black said. "We're excited with the reception co-op has received from employers, because they play a critical role in delivering work opportunities for our co-op students."

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